Last week was an eventful one for the climate, an important one. Not because carbon emissions were slashed, nor because someone invented a cheap way to remove vast quantities of greenhouse gases from the air. Not even because of Ana, the first named tropical storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, formed before the official June 1 start of the season for the seventh year in a row. No, all that happened occurred at a press release in Geneva, a court room in the Netherlands, and at the annual board meetings of two of America’s largest fossil fuel majors, Exxon and Chevron. The report released by the International Energy Agency (IEA), which was formed by United Nations in 1974 to oversee and assure the smooth operation of the world’s energy system, differed markedly from its previous ones, which could be characterized as industry-friendly. In the IEA’s view, the world’s need for fossil fuels would continue to grow indefinitely as the world’s economy grew. Last week’s report was a bombshell. It saw no further need for the exploration or production of any fossil fuel, and called for the immediate cessation of both activities. Moreover, it said, don’t start any new ones. Investment instead should be in renewable energy sources, especially wind and solar. Needless to say, the report generated a lot of attention. The immediate reaction was shock. Within a day or two, shock turned to disbelief, and then to opposition. Asia, Africa, even the UK, said, in effect, we can’t and we won’t. The IEA can’t force any country or company to comply with its directives, but neither can it be blithely ignored without consequence to one’s international standing. The industry has been put on notice; the playing field has changed. The eternal verities are neither eternal nor true. A knell has tolled, and everybody knows it. They’ve got the message. They’ll grumble, and delay, and defy, but they know now they’re living on borrowed time.
Two more remarkable climate events happened this week at annual shareholder meetings held by Exxon and Chevron, two of the biggest and baddest of the fossil fuel behemoths. Such affairs are usually pretty cut and dried, staid, almost boring. In general the accounting firm and the Board of Directors nominated and supported by the company are approved with little or no opposition, and a few shareholder proposals opposed by management are summarily voted down. Not this time. At Exxon’s meeting, a rump group of activist shareholders who controlled less than 0.02% of the outstanding shares, managed to place two and maybe three of their slate of four directors (one was too close to call) on Exxon’s 17-member Board. Neither of the winning candidates were particularly activist or had strong environmental credentials — one had been CEO of a refinery. So the expectations are for relatively little shake-up at Exxon, with a renewed focus on the bottom line. So, what changed? The relationship between a dominant, self-assured management and a servile, quiescent body of share owners. The latter sent the former a clear message: the days of taking us for granted are over. Henceforth, we have a say in how this company is run. You’ve been in charge for a long time, but now we’re at the table; we’re in charge.
At Chevron, the story was the same but different. A shareholder proposal requiring management to better account for and rein in Level 3 pollution, the negative effects not of producing the oil and gas, but of how those products affected consumers and the environment, opposed of course by management, won approval. The message? No more green-washing. Our products harm people and damage the environment. We’ve got to do better. You’ve got to do better.
The third shocker of the week was the ruling by a Dutch court, that Royal Dutch Shell was not doing nearly enough to limit the harm it was doing. Shell had announced that it would curtail carbon emissions by 20% by 2030, with no clear plan or benchmarks on how it would meet that goal. The Court ordered Shell to reduce emissions by 45% by 2030, with interim targets. Again, the message was clear: we’re in charge, and we’re going to make you be responsible corporate citizens. No more green-washing.
Commentators in the media tended to downplay the magnitude of the cumulative effects of the week’s events. What, after all, had occurred to slow or stop climate change? Some fell back on a concept much favored by climate scientists, the notion of a tipping point. Climatologists use the term to refer to the moment when a potential, long-looming threat becomes an irreversible, unstoppable disaster. The events of the past week were not a tipping point. Nothing happened to make the efforts to preserve a habitable Earth inevitable, to start a snowball careening down a steep slope, becoming an avalanche that will green the Earth. No. A better analogy to describe the import of the week’s events is a small earthquake, a mere tremor, no buildings toppled, no victims buried in rubble. Suddenly the Earth shifts, slips, jiggles. Did you feel that? What just happened? The Earth just moved. Terra firma suddenly wasn’t so firm. If you’ve experienced such a tremor, you know how disconcerting it is. No harm done, no damage caused, but a fundamental, unexamined certainty has shattered, gone in a flash. The Earth isn’t solid, reassuring, something you can take for granted. It just moved. I felt it. This changes everything.
This past week the climate crisis came of age. It got real. Public awareness has been growing for years, to little effect. This week it had it’s coming out party. Its bat mitzvah, its quinceañera. It’s an adult now, worthy of respect, of deference. Welcome to the party. Have a seat. We see you now. We’ll never ignore you again. The butterfly has emerged from its cocoon. It can fly, and it must be reckoned with.
Can the world collectively act to conserve a hospitable habitat for humans and other living creatures? The events of this week have brought us no closer to knowing the answer to that question. But the ground has shifted. Perceptions, expectations, and realities have changed. Our chances of surviving as a species for another century or perhaps even a millennium just got a little better.